Mask Life: The Mystical and the Mundane in Gauri Gill
Gauri Gill: Projects 108 at MoMA PS1
April 15 to September 3, 2018
22-25 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City, momaps1.org
While mysticism likely conjures associations of fog rather than clarity, in the Acts of Appearance series by Indian artist Gauri Gill, a merging of myth and reality results in images that are crystal clear. These photographs, the heart of her exhibition at MoMA PS1, are so palpable in their presentness that a viewer feels they might walk into the scene.
The exhibition is #108 in the Elaine Dannheisser Projects Series, established at MoMA in 1971, and comprises 75 photographs, primarily pigmented inkjet prints from her ongoing Acts series (from 2015), along with images from another ongoing series, Notes from the Desert (from 1999). The Acts are colored photos of varying sizes that depict people going about their daily lives while wearing hand-crafted papier-mâché masks. The “actors” are members of the indigenous Kokna community in Maharashtra, India known for their mask-wearing Bahoda festival, in which, over a number of nights, they reenact Hindu and tribal myths through dance and masquerade. Setting out to re-contextualize this tradition within daily life, Gill commissioned local artists Subhas and Bhagvan Dharma Kadu (who are also cast members) to create a series of masks of everyday people, animals, and objects (rather than the usual festival animals, gods and demons), to be worn by volunteers going about quotidian tasks. Through this process, Gill interrogates the relationship between the mystic and the mundane.
These images are accompanied by Notes from the Desert: Smaller, predominantly black and white silver gelatin prints that feature various aspects of marginalized rural communities in Western Rajasthan, this series includes a subset, titled “The Marks on the Wall”, of murals on classroom walls decorated with words and images. The Notes act as a kind of support to the Acts in the show’s overall exploration of community and collaboration.
One of the first images visitors encounter, Sumri, daughter of Ismail the shepherd, Barmer, from the Notes series, is a prologue to the rest of the show. In it, a girl and a goat lean into one another, the girl’s arms wrapped around the goat, her face buried in its neck. The goat here acts like the masks in the Acts series, merging human and animal in a profoundly intimate moment. Across from Sumri hangs a seductive selection from the Acts in which women pose in or near their homes in various animal masks. For instance, a cobra-masked woman in a pink sari lounges on a couch beneath a window that diffuses warm daylight. Another room features a photograph of a male shopkeeper in a blue shirt wearing this same mask, carefully weighing some onions. In an image featuring both human and animal masks, an old woman reclines on a table at a doctor’s office and wears a mask of a worried-looking old woman. Behind her, a man in a rat mask (of the type often found in Indian hospitals) attends her head, standing in front of a white board, while a younger lady wearing a mask of a woman with a surprised expression hangs an IV. Other scenes of transformed activity include a trio of mammals playing a game on the floor, a bird joining two people on a motorcycle, and the sun and the moon walking down a dirt path, lighting their way in a soft glow. These images are cinematic and playful, a puppet show come to life. Although specific identities are hidden by the expressive masks, each actor appears as spectacularly individual in Gill’s compassionate staging and interpretation
Distributed among Acts of Appearance, the Notes feel like dream scenes, their black and white coloration reading like concept sketches. Rooms with writing on the walls appear to wait for a cast to arrive. In one from Notes, in fact, a woman with a mask halfway pulled up her face, covering her eyes but revealing her nose and below, sits on the floor, as if taking a break between posing. Although the Notes are discrete from the Acts, in this exhibition their intermingling creates the effect of frames from one jovial and whimsical film – Wes Anderson with a twist.
A cinematic interpretation was reinforced by a lack of traditional labels. In each room there was a small key that numbered each work and gave the series to which it belonged, and occasionally also a title (only for works from the Notes series). This lack of institutional labeling consistency from a MoMA affiliate was initially frustrating. For this viewer, my craving for narrative structure fought the sparse, commercial gallery-style hang. But after some time in the show, the jewel colored walls (painted deep blue, crimson, and saffron – inspired by vegetable dyes, indigo, madder, henna, and turmeric), together with the inherent playfulness of the imagery, actually left me relieved at the lack of labeling. Recalling Gauri Gill’s prompt to her Appearance actors to simply improvise and think about “what happens when we choose to self-reflexively ‘play ourselves’,” organizer Lucy Gallun refreshingly made the exhibition an exploratory space in which to move back and forth free from a linear, curatorially pre-digested interpretation. This made the warm wall colors and vibrant images seem all the more welcoming: Each tableau, with the unique rasas (emotions) portrayed on the masks, and the actors’ organic posing, were both relatable in their humanity and mysterious behind those beautifully crafted masks.